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Dancing Becomes Life-Changing in "Mad Hot Ballroom"

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • Updated Jul 27, 2007
Dancing Becomes Life-Changing in "Mad Hot Ballroom"

Release Date:  May 27, 2005 (in select cities)
Rating:  PG (for mild references to violence and sexuality)
Genre:  Documentary
Run Time:  105 min.
Director:  Marilyn Agrelo

In a rundown gymnasium in Brooklyn, N.Y., several dozen fifth-graders are being put through their paces.  It’s not basketball, volleyball or any of the other sports we all remember from sweaty P.E. classes.  In this gym, it’s ballroom dancing – and when you see the way these kids swing, tango, rumba and meringue, you just may want to join in on the fun.  I know I did.

Each year, dozens of New York City schools require some 6,000 fifth-grade students to learn ballroom dancing.  For a total of ten weeks, the kids work with dance teachers, learning a wide array of moves, along with the history of the dances.  They work hard, and it’s hard to tell whether the teachers or the students are more committed.  At the end of the time, the best dancers are selected by their teachers for a city-wide competition, which takes place over several weeks and finally narrows itself down to the finals – and one school, which takes home the grand prize (a trophy taller than the teachers).  It’s a life-changing event that director Marilyn Agrelo covers with probing insightfulness, but which is sure to leave a smile on your face.  Me, I had to wipe away a few tears.

With the help of journalist Amy Sewell, who covered the competition and the weeks leading up to it for a feature at a small New York newspaper, Agrelo focuses on three schools: P.S. 115, located in the lower-class, heavily Dominican Washington Heights, P.S. 150 in Tribeca and P.S. 112 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that has been traditionally Italian, but which is now half-Asian, due to immigration.  These aren’t wealthy kids, and they spend as much time talking about the drug problem as they do their desire to be selected for and win the dance competition.  It’s lovely to watch, however, as they discuss the opposite sex (“Ewwww!”), and what it’s like to dance with them – especially the boys who have trouble leading.

What’s amazing is that the kids not only learn to dance like professionals – and boy, do they – but how very much their lives are transformed in the process.  It’s often been said that idleness is one of the many causes of crime, especially in the inner city, and when you see the kids practicing their moves with each other (yes, in pairs!) outside of class, it is very evident that giving them something to do, in their spare time, as well as something to hope for, is just as important as good schooling and parenting.  Although some of the kids, as the teachers lament, still fall into crime, others experience a life-changing moment.  And that, clearly, is what these dedicated instructors yearn for.  As we watch, so do we.  We, and children, all need the arts.

Agrelo spends a bit too much camera time on the children’s chatter, which slows the documentary’s pacing.  I would have liked to have heard more from the parents, instead.  However, she captures very revealing moments of dialogue with the teachers, such as the one who longs for that trophy like nothing else, and the principal who “doesn’t like competition,” but who nevertheless agrees to allow the kids to participate.  Hopefully, parents who feel like her will also be encouraged to allow their children to compete, even if it means failure, after listening to the director of the dance competition.  While the teachers all strategized about what to do for the kids who lost (so they wouldn’t feel bad), he tells them in no uncertain terms that competition is good for kids – and that, horror of horrors, even losing can be good.  “They are learning life lessons here,” he says.  “And in life, there are winners and losers.”  A great message that we all need to hear in this age of entitlement.

Aye, carumba!  Do you want to do the rumba?  Well, take the kids and have a ball.

AUDIENCE:  Children, teens and adults


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  None, although characters discuss the drug problem in their neighborhoods, expressing frustration, disappointment and refusal to ever become involved. 
  • Language/Profanity:  None.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Fifth-grade children talk about who they “like;” boy calls one girl “hot.”
  • Violence:  None.